Modi in an image trap, Nitish won’t let him break free

The timing of Nitish Kumar’s assault on Narendra Modi is intriguing. The general elections are too far away, the NDA is in the midst of finalising its choice for the presidential polls and neither the BJP nor Modi has uttered or suggested anything recently that would merit such strong reaction from the Chief of the JD(U). The Congress is trapped in many problems of its own to squander its energies on breaking the fragile NDA. In any case, it is too early for such an exercise.

But Nitish is a seasoned politician. He won’t trigger a controversy without a political calculation in place.

Here are a few explanations for his action. The most obvious one is he is a contender for the prime minister’s post and sees Modi as a strong challenger. With Modi establishing himself as the most powerful man in the BJP, the threat to his ambition is more genuine now than ever before. Nitish wants to play his political cards before Modi consolidates his position in the NDA further by winning over non-JD(U) allies in the alliance.

Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi could both be potential PM candidates for the NDA. AFP

The emphasis on 'secularism’ is deliberate. It puts the non-BJP allies in a bind. They have to look at their constituencies back home too. Modi is still identified with hard line Hindutva and does not inspire great confidence as a non-partisan leader. For the allies, supporting Modi for prime minister is fraught with big political risks. If they depend on the Muslim vote, they have to wash their hands off it. This is a real problem for Nitish in Bihar and he wants to drill it into other allies.

They will also need to seriously consider the 'Hindu liberal’ votes too. Rural and semi-urban India, where the major chunk of votes for parties remains, has never been too enthusiastic about radical Hindutva despite being religious. This explains why the BJP still remains primarily an urban party and why the deeply entrenched network of the Sangh Parivar across India has not helped it grow bigger than what it is.

People hate instability. Communal violence tends to disturb their normal lives. Any party seen to be remotely trying to smuggle in tension would be rebuffed by the 'liberal’ voter. Why a deeply religious country like India has been so harsh in refusal of Hindutva would make for a good research topic indeed.

Unfortunately, Modi’s image raises bogeys, many of which are unwarranted. He has ensured peace in a state prone to communal violence for close to a decade. He has ensured development and economic prosperity for the state. His government has been far better than the Congress governments in the state. But all this won’t matter during poll time at the national level. Everything will come down to 2002 riots and his alleged dubious role then. Nitish, by making secularism the flash point, is trying to keep Modi away from potential allies.

Is Nitish’s attack on Modi, a game plan of a section of the BJP at the national level which is unhappy at the way the Gujarat strong man bullied his way to the top? The Bihar chief minister is known to be close to the Advani-Sushma axis in the BJP. The state unit of the party led by Sushil Modi is more aligned to this group than the section backing Modi. It was interesting that Sushil immediately endorsed Nitish’s stand on a secular leader as prime minister immediately after the former broached it to the media. This group realises that with RSS backing Modi, it has little scope to maneuver inside the party now. The best way to neutralise Modi is to use the allies. Nitish thus became the natural part in the game plan.

It is interesting that none of the senior BJP leaders has come out with a reaction to his diatribe against Modi so far. The JD(U) has been making it clear that it is not against the BJP but against Modi. The silence speaks a lot about the state of the party. However, this is just conjecture. The picture will be clearer once the confrontation becomes more open.

The third possibility is the Congress trying to break the NDA to bolster its position at the Centre. The JD(U) and the Congress are not ideologically too far apart. And the JD(U) is not a fickle ally like Mamata’s Trinamool Congress. If it wants to go full steam with its reforms agenda it has to have the maximum support from other parties at its command. Minor compromises like a special package for Bihar would keep Nitish happy. It won’t hurt the UPA either. But this option appears tad far-fetched at the moment.

Whatever Nitish’s idea, he has certainly queered the pitch for Modi. Expect a the latter to strike back soon.

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